The future of air quality management

Cardiff Council is leading the way in improving air quality across the capital. What can we learn?

Smart cities are often thought to be focused on increasing efficiency and productivity. However, the definition also includes caring for the health of a city’s inhabitants. Poor air quality is the largest environmental risk to public health in the UK. 

Outside of the UK, the news on air quality does not get much better. According to IQAir, only seven countries are meeting the World Health Organisation (WHO) air quality standard, with deadly air pollution worsening in places due to a rebound in economic activity and the toxic impact of wildfire smoke.

There is clear evidence to show that exposure to air pollution reduces life expectancy and significantly increases the risk of dying from heart disease, strokes, respiratory diseases, lung cancer and other conditions.

Long-term exposure to air pollution can cause chronic conditions such as cardiovascular and respiratory diseases as well as lung cancer, leading to reduced life expectancy. In terms of short-term exposure, elevated levels of air pollution can also cause a range of health impacts like effects on lung function, exacerbation of asthma, increases in respiratory and cardiovascular hospital admissions and mortality.

While it is (literally) an invisible issue, The Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollution have shown that air pollution was estimated to cause 29,000 to 43,000 deaths a year in the UK. 

The UK government has published advice on how to avoid developing health conditions from poor air quality such as limiting or avoiding any strenuous activity in high pollution areas or closing external doors and windows facing a busy street during congested periods. 

Cardiff

However, Cardiff Council has taken this to the next level. In response to the growing concerns of air pollution in the capital, the council brought in a Clean Air Plan to reduce the level of pollutants and improve air quality. 

It focused on bringing in electric buses for routes that run into the city centre, a bus retrofitting programme to reduce vehicle emissions from these vehicles, taxi mitigation measures, and city centre transport improvements.

Since the late 90s, each local authority in the UK must carry out a review and assessment of air quality in their area. This involves measuring air pollution and trying to predict how it will change in the next few years. E

F The aim of the review is to make sure that the national air quality objectives will be achieved throughout the UK by the relevant deadlines. These objectives have been put in place to protect people’s health and the environment.

If a local authority finds any places where the objectives are not likely to be achieved, it must declare an Air Quality Management Area there. This area could be just one or two streets, or it could be much bigger.

Cardiff Council’s AQMAs have been shown to actively improve the air quality for residents in the capital. 

Councillor Dan De’Ath, cabinet member for strategic planning and transport at Cardiff Council said during an update on the AQMAs in December 2023: “The latest study into air pollution in Cardiff shows that residents enjoyed cleaner air across the city throughout 2022 when compared with pre-pandemic figures in 2019. 

It showed that there were no breaches of air quality objectives at any of the monitoring sites during 2022 and although the levels of NO2 are slightly higher than in 2021, this is understandable due to the Covid restrictions that were in place.

“Although this data is encouraging, there is more work to do. We need to continue to reduce the levels of pollutants.”

Air quality monitoring

The council has a variety of different air quality monitoring stations across the city that monitor a range of pollutants, including Nitrogen Dioxide(NO2)and very small particles of dust known as Particulate Matter (PM10and PM2.5). 

In law, legal limits are set for each pollutant and every local authority in Wales has a legal duty to monitor them and report their findings, along with mitigation measures, to Welsh Government every year.

Vehicle emissions, especially from diesel vehicles, are the highest-contributing factor to poor air quality. To combat this, Cardiff Council has also agreed to the principle of bringing in a road user charge.

This means people will have to make a more conscious effort whether they want to use their car or not. 

De’Ath said: “If we want people to be healthier, we must encourage people to be less reliant on their cars, and to make the shift to public transport, cycling or walking. 

“Not only will it benefit people’s health but will help the city reduce our carbon footprint as we look to combat climate change.” 

He added that there will be “extensive public consultation” on the topic and a series of measures will be introduced before any charge is implemented.

This will include the introduction of £1 bus fares on key routes, expanding bus services across the city, and delivering the first phase of the Cardiff Crossrail. De’Ath hopes this will make getting around the city without a car easier.

While Cardiff Council’s AQMAs are still in their early stages, it is a hopeful sign for the success of the future of air quality management. 

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